HAMILTON -- All the kid wants is a free T-shirt. The colourful and flashy World Wide Web site on the Internet says he can get one by earning 50 points on the company's site. To earn points, all he has to do is answer a few questions.
Turns out, the questions help form a marketing research database that can be used by advertising executives wanting to send a marketing message directly to children.
And in a twist sounding like a bizarre pyramid scheme, the child can earn even more points towards that shirt by getting friends to visit the site . The child may eventually earn that shirt.
But in the meantime, he's also given out a lot of personal information about himself - and his family.
Information like his e-mail address, real name, birthdate, how many people live in his household, where he lives, what kind of computer his family owns, whether the computer has a CD-ROM drive in it, what his favourite TV commercial is, what his interests are, what he wants to be when he grows up, and more.
Welcome to the new breed of on-line advertising and marketing companies using new technology to reach a new market of wired children.
And for some parents, this means welcome to another on-line nightmare.
"Kids are being subtly exploited", says Gary Direnfeld, a Hamilton social worker in private practice who provides consultation and counselling for families and children.
"These tactics can set in motion a process for more extensive exploitation. Today it's a site asking who you are, tomorrow we're going to ask you questions about your parents, and the day after that we're going to get your address out of you."
"You can be inducted over time in a process that has you disclosing more and more about yourself, that leaves you more and more revealed."
"Very insidiously, it can lead to high degrees of risk."
The World Wide Web is marvelous in its simplicity and diversity.
It mixes pictures, words, sound, and video in an engaging, interactive multimedia landscape that anyone with Internet access and a computer can explore.
The Web's strengths - graphics and easy interactivity - are also what makes it so powerfully attractive to children.
Once immersed in this landscape, children can roam from Web site to site in a continuous, eye-opening, inquisitive, mouse-clicking romp. They can learn, play games, exchange ideas, and have contact across borders and cultures impossible outside of this wired world.
There are, of course, some frightening pitfalls.
On-line pornography and scary stories of pedophiles befriending children over the Net gobble up almost all of the dialogue on the dangers lurking online.
But concern over a new, less obvious, digital danger from marketing firms is growing as the Internet comes of age.
The powerful presence of corporate giants as well as upstart companies are putting crass sales pitches on-line to grab the "cybertot" category.
Most adults don't frequent the sites attractive to kids, and since there are no nude pictures or swear words, the content often slips by with little concern.
But some parents, educators and child advocates are starting to wake up and smell the potential for exploitation.
Lump these current trends in with results from a survey that saw a majority of child respondents say they trusted their computers more than their parents and its a scenario that disturbs Dr. Kathryn Montgomery.
As co-founder of the Washington D.C.-based Centre For Media Education, Montgomery is taking on manipulative on-line children's advertising.
"Cross-promotion of licensed products through TV, movies, magazines, discount stores, and fast food restaurants has produced a proliferation of licensed characters that permeate every facet of a child's life", writes Montgomery, in the seminal paper Children In The Digital Age, published in The American Prospect.
The on-line world is perfect way to seamlessly blend information content and advertisements in "branded environments".
Says Montgomery: "The goal of these environments is to get kids involved with brands - including brand characters, brand logos, brand jingles and brand video."
Blending pictures, sound, video, music, words is what the Web does best.
From a money-making point of view, the attraction of pitching products to children is obvious.
According to BusinessWeek, by combining allowances, earnings, and gifts, American children under 14 will directly spend $20 billion this year and will influence another $200 billion worth of family purchases. No wonder marketers want a piece of them.
About four million kids under age 17 went online last year, a figure expected to grow exponentially in the next few years.
Marketers start early.
Vancouver's Media Foundation, which wages war against what it considers unscrupulous advertising, estimates that 85 per cent of American children are on mailing lists before they are born through information culled from pre-natal classes and maternity stores.
And convincing those tiny hands to reach for their parents' wallets is a lucrative marketing trend.
It moved into high gear in the mid-1980s when the American Federal Communications Commission deregulated children's television. Toy manufactures embraced Saturday morning cartoons as a way for what some see as half-hour commercials for licensed products.
The Media Foundation says studies suggest children do not understand that the purpose of advertising is to sell products until the age of seven. Anything advertised to young children can get a nod of approval - even things clearly designed for an adult market, like lipstick or diet drinks.
"Advertising is not a bad thing. Kids are exposed to it every day", says Lane Beauchampof The KidsCom Company.
The KidsCom Web site has been slammed for throwing ad pitches at children. He says information his site asks from children are only used to match children for an e-mail pen pal program and the company has softened its approach in recent months.
Beauchamp says mistakes are made because the Internet evolves so rapidly.
"I can understand the cynical nature in this atmosphere. It's easy to assume some malicious intent here."
"Because it is a technology that kids can work better than their parents, I think that scares a lot of people."
Karen Kafer, director of communication with Kellogg USA, says the company site is geared towards families rather than children, and the use of characters Tony The Tiger and Snap, Crackle, And Pop are for fun and colour, not a scheme to entice kids.
"It's really just a fun way to get information about Kellogg's. We take people's concerns seriously, but we feel we've done everything we can to ensure it is appropriate for children."
Dr. Calvin Gotlieb, professor emeritus in the computer science department at University of Toronto, says reigning in online marketing isn't technologically easy.
Screening software may help a bit. These computer programs enable parents or teachers to screen out certain content areas on the Web and restrict some information children can give out on-line.
"These are programs designed to cut down on the adult sites children with Internet access can visit. They don't take marketing legal products into consideration."
It likely requires governments to step in, says Gotlieb.
"A minimum restriction should be to let the user know that the information they're giving out is subject to being captured and disseminated. In a sense it is informed consent to what is going on - but with kids the objection is you can't really get informed consent."
"Even telling kids the information is subject to 'capture and dissemination' won't mean much to them. And won't stop them if they want a free T-shirt."
Regulation in itself is a bit of a red flag to Dr. David Jones, a computer science professor at McMaster University and president of Electronic Frontier Canada.
"Parents need to be aware of these sites. But I also think it is very easy for parents to talk to their kids about it - and most kids will get it. They'll understand."
Regulation can be dangerous. And in this case, he says, it is overkill.
Jones compares it to telephone rules for kids - if mom and dad aren't home, say they can't come to the phone; you never say you're alone in the house; you never give out personal information.
"Parents just need to use common sense and use the same rules they tell their kids about the telephone and apply that to the Internet."
Direnfeld agrees parents need to play a big role in helping kids safely navigate the Internet.
In an analogy, he likens the Internet to a big lake. "We all need water; we all need information. You can use your lake differently - you can use it for recreation or you can pollute it."
"Whether that pollution is pornography, hate, how to make bombs, how to exploit sexually, or how to exploit materially. All these things are in the 'lake'."
"Every parent has an obligation to teach their kids how to swim; every parent has an obligation to help kids learn to cipher out what's pollution and what's recreation and what's healthy."
Some pollutants are more subtle and more difficult for kids to recognize.
"That's why parents should regularly be involved with their kids when they're using the Net. So as these different things come up the parent is there to interpret to the child the intent, to help them discriminate between is this fun or is this harmful."
Ottawa's Media Awareness Network has a Web site chock and block full of information and reports for parents on the issue. The site also features a free computer game called the Three Little Cyberpigs.
Jan D'arcy, network co-director, says the game teaches Web literacy to children aged six to nine and deals with advertising issues.
It features three little cyberpigs surfing down the information highway looking for a new club house. The Big Bad Wolf tries to give them a free clubhouse made of straw - all they have to do is fill out a computer survey.
They do and they get their clubhouse and its no good. Other game scenarios take them through buying things on-line and into a chat room.
The game and the reports are available on the Web at: www.screen.com/mnet. The Centre For Media Education has already had some success in changing the direction on-line marketing is headed. After publication of the centre's damning report last year, many large companies voluntarily took some of the crassest elements out of their Web pages.
Some - like KidsCom - started labeling advertisements, others cutback on the questions asked of kids and most put notices on the site that children should check with their parents before sending any e-mail.
The centre has published an Agenda For Reform, looking to the American government for regulation.
"Because children are a particularly vulnerable audience, effective safeguards will be necessary to prevent manipulation by advertisers and to protect children and their families from invasions of privacy", says Montgomery.
Gotlieb says the agenda for dealing with cyber-danger is unlikely to take it's focus away from pornography.
"It is worrisome that you can manipulate children in different ways. But this is at the lower end of the scale. There are all kinds of worries about what happens on the Web."
"It's a legitimate concern but other problems loom ahead of it and that's where the attention is going to be for quite a while."
Some of the more aggressive marketers to children dwell on ways to get their message past the "gatekeepers" and into the minds of kids.
"Gatekeepers" is MarketSpeak for parents.
When it comes to the Internet - for many children - the gate is wide, wide open.